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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFrom The Housetops - Chapter 16
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From The Housetops - Chapter 16 Post by :Slic47 Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :608

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From The Housetops - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

Braden Thorpe realised that he would have to pay, one way or another, for what had happened in the operating room. Either his honour or his skill would be attacked for the course his knife had taken.

The day after his grandfather's death, he went to the office of Dr. Bates, the deposed family physician and adviser. He did not go in a cringing, apologetic spirit, but as one unafraid, as one who is justified within himself and fears not the report of evil. His heart was sore, for he knew he was to be misjudged. Those men who looked on while he worked so swiftly, so surely, so skilfully in that never-to-be-forgotten hour, were not to be deceived. He knew too well that he had performed with the most noteworthy skill, and, if he had any other feeling than that of grief for the death of one who had been dear to him, it was that of pride in the consciousness that he deserved the praise of these men for the manner in which he performed the most delicate of operations. He knew that they knew, quite as well as he, that but for the fatal swerving of half an inch of the instrument in his steady fingers, Templeton Thorpe would not only be alive at that moment but conceivably might be expected to survive for many days.

They had seen everything and they understood. He did not seek to conceal the truth from himself. He had heard the sharply drawn breath that was taken through the parted lips of his tense observers as that admirably handled blade slid from its true course and spoiled what might have been heralded as a marvellous feat in surgery. It was as if something had snapped in the minds of these three men who watched. They had looked, however, upon all that was before him as he worked. They had seen, as he saw, the thing that no human skill could conquer. He felt their eyes upon him as he turned the knife quickly, suddenly, surely, and then they had looked into his eyes as he raised them for a second. He had spared his grandfather another month of agony, and they had seen everything. It was not unlikely that the patient might have survived the anæsthetic, and it was equally probable that subsequent care on the part of the doctor and the nurse might have kept him alive long enough to permit his case to be recorded by virtue of his having escaped alive from the operating table, as one of those exasperatingly smug things known to the profession as a "successful operation,"—sardonic prelude to an act of God!

There seems to be no such thing as an unsuccessful operation. If God would only keep his finger out of the business, nothing could go wrong. It is always the act of God that keeps a man from enjoying the fruits of an absolutely successful operation. Up to the instant that Braden's knife took its sanguinary course, there was every indication that the operation would be successful, even though Mr. Thorpe were to breathe his last while the necessary stitches were being taken.

He had slept soundly throughout the night just past. For the first night in a week his mind and body took the rest that had been denied them for so long. The thing was behind him. It was over. He had earned his right to sleep. When he laid his head upon the pillow there was no fear of evil dreams, no qualms, no troubled conscience to baffle the demands of exhaustion. He had done no wrong. His sleep was long, sweet, refreshing. He had no fear of God in his soul that night, for he had spoken with God in the silence of the long night before and he was at peace with Him. No man could say that he had not tried to save the life of Templeton Thorpe. He had worked with all the knowledge at his command; he himself felt that he had worked as one inspired,—so much so, in fact, that he now knew that never again in all his life would he be able to surpass or even equal the effort of that unforgettable day. But he had recognised the futility of skill even as it was being exerted to its utmost accomplishments. The inevitable was bared to his intelligence. He had done his best for Templeton Thorpe; no man could have done more than that. With the eyes of other men upon him, eyes that saw all that he saw, he took it upon himself to spare his grandfather the few days that might have been added to his hell by an act less kind,—though no doubt more eminently professional.

And as he performed that final act of mercy, his mind and heart were on the handshake, and the word of farewell that his benefactor had murmured in his ear. Templeton Thorpe was at rest; he had thanked his grandson in advance.

So it was that Braden slept the night through without a tremor. But with his waking came the sense of responsibility to others. Not to the world at large, not to the wife of the dead man, but to the three sincere and honourable members of his profession, who, no doubt, found themselves in a most trying position. They were, in a way, his judges, and as such they were compelled to accept their own testimony as evidence for or against him. With him it was a matter of principle, with them a question of ethics. As men they were in all probability applauding his act, but as doctors they were bound by the first and paramount teachings of their profession to convict him of an unspeakable wrong. It was his duty to grant these men the right to speak of what they had seen.

He went first to see Dr. Bates, his oldest friend and counsellor, and the one man who could afterwards speak freely with the widow of the man who had been his lifelong patient. Going down in the elevator from his room at the hotel, Braden happened to glance at himself in the narrow mirror. He was startled into a second sharp, investigating look. Strange that he had not observed while shaving how thin his face had become. His cheeks seemed to have flattened out leanly over night; his heavy eyes looked out from shadowy recesses that he had failed to take account of before; there were deeper lines at the corners of his mouth, as if newly strengthened by some artful sculptor while he slept. He was older by years for that unguarded sleep. Time had taken him unawares; it had slyly seized the opportunity to remould his features while youth was weak from exhaustion. In a vague way he recalled a certain mysterious change in Anne Tresslyn's face. It was not age that had wrought the change in her, nor could it be age that had done the same for him.

The solution came to him suddenly, as he stepped out into the open air and saw the faces of other men. It was strength, not weakness, that had put its stamp upon his countenance, and upon Anne's; the strength that survives the constructive years, the years of development. He saw this set, firm strength in the faces of other men for the first time. They too no doubt had awakened abruptly from the dream of ambition to find themselves dominated by a purpose. That purpose was in their faces. Ambition was back of that purpose perhaps, deep in the soul of the man, but purpose had become the necessity.

Every man comes to that strange spot in the dash through life where he stops to divest himself of an ideal. He lays it down beside the road and, without noticing, picks up a resolve in its place and strides onward, scarcely conscious of the substitution. It requires strength to carry a resolve. An ideal carries itself and is no burden. So each of these men in the street,—truckman, motorman, merchant, clerk, what you will,—sets forth each day with the same old resolution at his heels; and in their set faces is the strength that comes with the transition from wonder to earnestness. Its mark was stamped upon the countenances of young and old alike. Even the beggar at the street corner below was without his ideal. Even he had a definite, determined purpose.

Then there was that subtle change in Anne. He thought of it now, most unwillingly. He did not want to think of her. He was certain that he had put her out of his thoughts. Now he realised that she had merely lain dormant in his mind while it was filled with the intensities of the past few days. She had not been crowded out, after all. The sharp recollection of the impression he had had on seeing her immediately after his arrival was proof that she was still to be reckoned with in his thoughts.

The strange, elusive maturity that had come into her young, smooth face,—that was it. Maturity without the passing of Youth; definiteness, understanding, discovery,—a grip on the realities of life, just as it was with him and all the others who were awake. A year in the life of a young thing like Anne could not have created the difference that he felt rather than saw.

Something more significant than the dimensions of a twelve-month had added its measure to Anne's outlook upon life. She had turned a corner in the lane and was facing the vast plain she would have to cross unguided. She had come to the place where she must think and act for herself,—and to that place all men and all women come abruptly, one time or another, to become units in the multitude.

We do not know when we pass that inevitable spot, nor have we the power to work backward and decide upon the exact moment when adolescence gave way to manhood. It comes and passes without our knowledge, and we are given a new vision in the twinkling of an eye, in a single beat of the heart. No man knows just when he becomes a man in his own reckoning. It is not a matter of years, nor growth, nor maturity of body and mind, but an awakening which goes unrecorded on the mind's scroll. Some men do not note the change until they are fifty, others when they are fifteen. Circumstance does the trick.

He was still thinking of Anne as he hurried up the front door-steps and rang Dr. Bates' bell. She was not the same Anne that he had known and loved, far back in the days when he was young. Could it be possible that it was only a year ago? Was Anne so close to the present as all that, and yet so indefinably remote when it came to analysing this new look in her eyes? Was it only a year ago that she was so young and so unfound?

A sudden sickness assailed him as he waited for the maid to open the door. Anne had been made a widow. He, not God, was responsible for this new phase in her life. Had he not put a dreadful charge upon her conscience? Had he not forced her to share the responsibility with him? And, while the rest of the world might forever remain in ignorance, would it ever be possible for her to hide the truth from herself?

She knew what it all meant, and she had offered to share the consequences with him, no matter what course his judgment led him to pursue. He had not considered her until this instant as a partner in the undertaking, but now he realised that she must certainly be looking upon herself as such. His heart sank. He had made a hideous mistake. He should not have gone to her. She could not justify herself by the same means that were open to him.

From her point of view, he had killed her husband, and with her consent!

He found himself treating the dead man in a curiously detached fashion, and not as his own blood-relation. Her husband, that was the long and the short of his swift reflections, not his grandfather. All her life she would remember that she had supported him in an undertaking that had to do with the certain death of her husband, and no matter how merciful, how sensible that act may have been, or how earnestly he may have tried to see his way clear to follow a course opposed to the one he had taken, the fact remained that she had acknowledged herself prepared for just what subsequently happened in the operating room.

Going back to the beginning, Templeton Thorpe's death was in her mind the day she married him. It had never been a question with her as to how he should die, but _when_. But this way to the desired end could never have been included in her calculations. _This was not the way out.

She had been forced to take a stand with him in this unhappy business, and she would have to pay a cost that he could not share with her, for his conscience was clear. What were her thoughts to-day? With what ugly crime was she charging herself? Was she, in the secrecy of her soul, convicting herself of murder? Was _that what he had given her to think about all the rest of her life?

The servant was slow in answering the bell. They always are at the homes of doctors.

"Is Dr. Bates at home?"

"Office hours from eight to nine, and four to six."

"Say that Dr. Thorpe wishes to see him."

This seemed to make a difference. "He is out, Dr. Thorpe. We expect him in any moment though. For lunch. Will you please to come in and wait?"

"Thank you."

She felt called upon to deliver a bit of information. "He went down to see Mrs. Thorpe, sir,—your poor grandmother."

"I see," said Braden dully. It did not occur to him that enlightenment was necessary. A queer little chill ran through his veins. Was Dr. Bates down there now, telling Anne all that he knew, and was she, in the misery of remorse, making him her confessor? In the light of these disturbing thoughts, he was fast becoming blind to the real object of this, the first of the three visits he was to make.

Dr. Bates found him staring gloomily from the window when he came into the office half an hour later, and at once put the wrong though obvious construction upon his mood.

"Come, come, my boy," he said as they shook hands; "put it out of your mind. Don't let the thing weigh like this. You knew what you were about yesterday, so don't look back upon what happened with—"

Braden interrupted him, irrelevantly. "You've been down to see Mrs. Thorpe. How is she? How does she appear to be taking it?" He spoke rapidly, nervously.

"As well as could be expected," replied the older man drily. "She is glad that it's all over. So are we all, for that matter."

"Did she send for you?"

"Yes," said Dr. Bates, after an instant's hesitation. "I'll be frank with you, Braden. She wanted to know just what happened."

"And you told her?"

"I told her that you did everything that a man could do," said the other, choosing his words with care.

"In other words, you did not tell her what happened."

"I did not, my boy. There is no reason why she should know. It is better that she should never know," said Dr. Bates gravely.

"What did she say?" asked Braden sharply.

Dr. Bates suddenly was struck by the pallor in the drawn face. "See here, Braden, you must get a little rest. Take my advice and—"

"Tell me what she had to say," insisted the young man.

"She cried a little when I told her that you had done your best, and that's about all."

"Didn't she confess that she expected—that she feared I might have—"

"Confess? Why do you use that word?" demanded Dr. Bates, as the young man failed to complete his sentence. His gaze was now fixed intently on Braden's face. A suspicion was growing in his mind.

"I am terribly distressed about something, Dr. Bates," said Braden, uneasily. "I wish you would tell me everything that Anne had to say to you."

"Well, for one thing, she said that she knew you would do everything in your power to bring about a successful result. She seemed vastly relieved when I told her that you had done all that mortal man could do. I don't believe she has the faintest idea that—that an accident occurred. Now that I think of it, she did stop me when I undertook to convince her that your bark is worse than your bite, young man,—in other words, that your theories are for conversational and not practical purposes. Yes, she cut me off rather sharply. I hadn't attached any importance to her—See here, Braden," he demanded suddenly, "is there any reason why she should have cut me off like that? Had she cause to feel that you might have put into practice your—your—Come, come, you know what I mean." He was leaning forward in his chair, his hands gripping the arm-rests.

"She is more or less in sympathy with my views," said Braden warily. "Of course, you could not expect her to be in sympathy with them in this case, however." He put it out as a feeler.

"Well, I should say not!" exclaimed Dr. Bates. "It's conceivable that she may have been in some doubt, however, until I reassured her. By George, I am just beginning to see through her, Braden. She had me down there to—to set her mind at rest about—about _you_. 'Pon my soul, she did it neatly, too."

"And she believes—you think she believes that her mind is at rest?"

"That's an odd question. What do you mean?"

"Just that. Does she believe that you told her the truth?"

"Oh! I see. Well, a doctor has to tell a good many lies in the course of a year. He gets so that he can tell them with a straighter face than when he's telling the truth. I don't see why Mrs. Thorpe should doubt my word—my professional word—unless there is some very strong reason for doing so." He continued to eye Braden keenly. "Do you know of any reason?"

Thorpe by this time was able to collect himself. The primal instinct to unburden himself to this old, understanding friend, embraced sturdy, outspoken argument in defence of his act, but this defence did not contemplate the possible inclusion of Anne. He was now satisfied that she had not delivered herself into the confidence of Dr. Bates. She had kept her secret close. It was not for him to make revelations. The newly aroused fear that even this good old friend might attach an unholy design to their motives impelled him to resort to equivocation, if not to actual falsehood. This was a side to the matter that had not been considered by him till now. But he was now acutely aware of an ugly conviction that she had thought of it afterwards, just as he was thinking of it now, hence her failure to repeat to Dr. Bates the substance of their discussion before the operation took place.

He experienced an unaccountable, disquieting sensation of guilt, of complicity in an evil deed, of a certain slyness that urged him to hide something from this shrewd old man. To his utter amazement, he was saying to himself that he must not "squeal" on Anne, his partner! He now knew that he could never speak of what had passed between himself and Anne. Of his own part in the affair he could speak frankly with this man, and with all men, and be assured that no sinister motive would be attributed to him. He would be free from the slightest trace of suspicion so long as he stood alone in accounts of the happenings of the day before. No matter how violent the criticism or how bitter the excoriation, he would at least be credited with honest intentions. But the mere mention of Anne's name would be the signal for a cry from the housetops, and all the world would hear. And Anne's name would sound the death knell of "honest intentions."

"As I said a moment ago, Dr. Bates, Mrs. Thorpe is fully aware of my rather revolutionary views," he said, not answering the question with directness. "That was enough to cause some uneasiness on my part."

"Um! I dare say," said Dr. Bates thoughtfully. Back in his mind was the recollection of a broken engagement, or something of the sort. "I see. Naturally. I think, on the whole, my boy, she believes that I told her the truth. You needn't be uneasy on that score. I—I—for a moment I had an idea that you might have _said something to her." It was almost a question.

Braden shook his head. His eyes did not flicker as he answered steadily: "Surely you cannot think that I would have so much as mentioned my views in discussing—"

"Certainly not, my boy," cried the other heartily. Braden did not fail to note the look of relief in his eye, however. "So now you are all right as far as Mrs. Thorpe is concerned. I made a point of assuring her that everything went off satisfactorily to the three of us. She need never know the truth. You needn't feel that you cannot look her in the eyes, Braden."

"'Gad, that sounds sinister," exclaimed Thorpe, staring. "That's what they say when they are talking about thieves and liars, Dr. Bates."

"I beg your pardon. I meant well, my boy, although perhaps it wasn't the nice thing to say. And now have you come to tell me that it was an accident, an unfortunate—"

"No," said Braden, straightening up. "I come to you first, Dr. Bates, because you are my oldest friend and supporter, and because you were the lifelong friend of my grandfather. I am going also to Dr. Bray and Dr. Ernest after I leave here. I do not want any one of you to feel that I expect you to shield me in this matter. You are at liberty to tell all that you know. I did what I thought was best, what my conscience ordered me to do, and I did it openly in the presence of three witnesses. There was no accident. No one may say that I bungled. No one—"

"I should say you didn't bungle," said the older man. "I never witnessed a finer—ahem! In fact, we all agree on that. My boy, you have a great future before you. You are one of the most skilful—"

"Thanks. I didn't come to hear words of praise, Dr. Bates. I came to release you from any obligation that you may—"

"Tut, tut! That's all right. We understand—perfectly. All three of us. I have talked it over with Bray and Ernest. What happened up there yesterday is as a closed book. We shall never open it. I will not go so far as to say that we support your theories, but we do applaud your method. There isn't one of us who would not have _felt like doing the thing you did, but on the other hand there isn't one of us who could have done it. We would have allowed him a few more days of life. Now that it is all over, I will not say that you did wrong. I can only say that it was not right to do the thing you did. However, it is your conscience and not mine that carries the load,—if there is one. You may rest assured that not one of us will ever voluntarily describe what actually took place."

"But I do not want to feel that you regard it your duty to protect me from the consequences of a deliberate—"

"See here, my lad, do you want the world to know that you took your grandfather's life? That's what it amounts to, you know. You can't go behind the facts."

Thorpe lowered his head. "It would be ridiculous for me to say that I do not care whether the world knows the truth about it, Dr. Bates. To be quite honest, sir, I do not want the world to know. You will understand why, in this particular instance, I should dread publicity. Mr. Thorpe was my grandfather. He was my benefactor. But that isn't the point. I had no legal right to do the thing I did. I took it upon myself to take a step that is not now countenanced by the law or by our profession. I did this in the presence of witnesses. What I want to make clear to you and to the other doctors is that I should have acted differently if my patient had been any one else in the world. I loved my grandfather. He was my only friend. He expected me to do him a great service yesterday. I could not fail him, sir. When I saw that there was nothing before him but a few awful days of agony, I did what he would have blessed me for doing had he been conscious. If my patient had been any one else I should have adhered strictly to the teachings of my profession. I would not have broken the law."

"Your grandfather knew when he went up to the operating room that he was not to leave it alive. Is that the case?"

"He did not expect to leave it alive, sir," amended Braden steadily.

"You had talked it all over with him?"

"I had agreed to perform the operation, that is all, sir. He knew that his case was hopeless. That is why he insisted on having the operation performed."

"In other words, he deliberately put you in your present position? He set his mind on forcing this thing upon you? Then all I have to say for Templeton Thorpe is that he was a damned—But there, he's dead and gone and, thank God, he can't hear me. You must understand, Braden, that this statement of yours throws an entirely new light upon the case," said Dr. Bates gravely. "The fact that it was actually expected of you makes your act a—er—shall we say less inspirational? I do not believe it wise for you to make this statement to my colleagues. You are quite safe in telling me, for I understand the situation perfectly. But if you tell them that there was an agreement—even a provisional agreement—I—well, the thing will not look the same to them."

"You are right, Dr. Bates," said Braden, after a moment. "Thank you for the advice. I see what you mean. I shall not tell them all that I have told you. Still, I am determined to see them and—"

"Quite so. It is right that you should. Give them cause to respect you, my boy. They saw everything. They are sound, just men. From what they have said to me, you may rest assured that they do not condemn you any more than I do. The anæsthetician saw nothing. He was occupied. That young fellow—what's his name?—may have been more capable of observing than we'd suspect in one so tender, but I fancy he wouldn't know _everything_. I happen to know that he saw the knife slip. He mentioned it to Simeon Dodge."

"To Simmy Dodge!"

"Yes. Dodge came to see me last night. He told me that the boy made some queer statement to him about the pylorus, and he seemed to be troubled. I set him straight in the matter. He doesn't know any more about the pylorus than he knew before, but he does know that no surgeon on earth could have avoided the accident that befell you in the crisis. Simmy, good soul, was for going out at once and buying off the interne, but I stopped him. We will take care of the young man. He doesn't say it was intentional, and we will convince him that it wasn't. How do you stand with young George Tresslyn?"

"I don't know. He used to like me. I haven't seen—"

"It appears that Simmy first inquired of George if he knew anything about the pylorus. He is Mrs. Thorpe's brother. I should be sorry if he got it into his head that—well, that there was anything wrong, anything that might take him to her with ugly questions."

"I shall have to chance that, Dr. Bates," said Braden grimly.

"Mrs. Thorpe must never know, Braden," said the other, gripping his hands behind his back.

"If it gets out, she can't help knowing. She may suspect even now—"

"But it is not to get out. There may be rumours starting from this interne's remark and supported by your avowed doctrines, but we must combine to suppress them. The newspapers cannot print a line without our authority, and they'll never get it. They will not dare to print a rumour that cannot be substantiated. I spoke of George a moment ago for a very good reason. I am afraid of him. He has been going down hill pretty fast of late. It wouldn't surprise me to hear that he had sunk low enough to attempt blackmail."

"Good heaven! Why—why, he's not that sort—"

"Don't be too sure of him. He is almost in the gutter, they say. He's _that sort, at any rate."

"I don't believe George ever did a crooked thing in his life, poor devil. He wouldn't dream of coming to me with a demand for—"

"He wouldn't come to you," said the other, sententiously. "He would not have the courage to do that. But he might go to Anne. Do you see what I mean?"

Braden shook his head. He recalled George's experiences in the sick-room and the opportunity that had been laid before him. "I see what you mean, but George—well, he's not as bad as you think, Dr. Bates."

"We'll see," said the older man briefly. "I hope he's the man you seem to think he is. I am afraid of him."

"He loves his sister, Dr. Bates."

"In that case he may not attempt to blackmail her, but it would not prevent his going to her with his story. The fact that he does love her may prove to be your greatest misfortune."

"What do you mean?"

"As I said before, Anne must never know," said Dr. Bates, laying his hand on the young man's shoulder and gripping it suddenly. "Your grandfather talked quite freely with me toward the end. No; Anne must never know."

Braden stared at the floor in utter perplexity.

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